Nicaragua is the least densely populated nation in Central America, with a demographic similar in size to its smaller neighbors. It is located about midway between Mexico and Colombia, bordered by Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south. Nicaragua ranges from the Caribbean Sea on the nation’s east coast, and the Pacific Ocean bordering the west. Nicaragua also possesses a series of islands and cays located in the Caribbean Sea.
The country’s name is derived from Nicarao, the name of the Nahuatl-speaking tribe which inhabited the shores of Lake Nicaragua before the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and the Spanish word Agua, meaning water, due to the presence of the large Lake Cocibolca (or Lake Nicaragua) and Lake Managua (or Lake Xolotlán), as well as lagoons and rivers in the region.
It is possible that Nicaragua was inhabited by Paleo-Indians as far back as 6000 years. The ancient footprints of Acahualinca suggest this, along with other archaeological evidence. At the end of the 15th century, western Nicaragua was inhabited by several indigenous peoples possibly related by culture and language to Indigenous groups from Mexico. They were primarily farmers who lived in towns, organized into small kingdoms, however, within three decades an estimated Indian population of one million plummeted to a few tens of thousands, as approximately half of the indigenous people in western Nicaragua died of diseases brought by the Spaniards. In eastern Nicaragua, a much smaller group of Native Americans that had migrated from Colombia and Panama lived a less sedentary life based on hunting and gathering.
Nicaragua was first discovered by Europeans when Christopher Columbus arrived from Honduras and explored the eastern coast on his fourth voyage in 1502.
In 1522, the first Spaniards entered the region of what would become known as Nicaragua. Gil González Dávila with a small force reached its western portion after a trek through Costa Rica. He proceeded to explore the fertile western valleys and was impressed with the Indian civilization he found there. He and his small army gathered gold and baptized Indians along the way. Eventually, they so imposed upon the Indians that they were attacked and nearly annihilated. González Dávila returned to his expedition’s starting point in Panama and reported on his find, naming the area Nicaragua. However, governor Pedrarias Dávila attempted to arrest him and confiscate his treasure. He was forced to flee to Santo Domingo to outfit another expedition. Within a few months, Nicaragua was invaded by several Spanish forces, each led by a conquistador. González Dávila was authorized by royal decree, and came in from the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Francisco Hernández de Córdoba at the command of the governor of Panama approached from Costa Rica. Pedro de Alvarado and Cristóbal de Olid at the command of Hernán Cortés, came from Guatemala through San Salvador and Honduras.
United States occupation (1909–1933)
In 1909, the United States provided political support to conservative-led forces rebelling against President Zelaya. U.S. motives included differences over the proposed Nicaragua Canal, Nicaragua’s potential as a destabilizing influence in the region, and Zelaya’s attempts to regulate foreign access to Nicaraguan natural resources. On November 17, 1909, two Americans were executed by order of Zelaya after the two men confessed to having laid a mine in the San Juan River with the intention of blowing up the Diamante. The U.S. justified the intervention by claiming to protect U.S. lives and property. Zelaya resigned later that year.
In August 1912, the President of Nicaragua, Adolfo Díaz, requested the resignation of the Secretary of War, General Luis Mena, concerned he was leading an insurrection. Mena fled Managua with his brother, the Chief of Police of Managua, and the insurrection escalated. When the U.S. Legation asked President Adolfo Díaz to ensure the safety of American citizens and property during the insurrection, Díaz replied that he could not and that…
In consequence my Government desires that the Government of the United States guarantee with its forces security for the property of American Citizens in Nicaragua and that it extend its protection to all the inhabitants of the Republic.
United States Marines occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933, except for a nine-month period beginning in 1925. From 1910 to 1926, the conservative party ruled Nicaragua. The Chamorro family, which had long dominated the party, effectively controlled the government during that period. In 1914, the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty was signed, giving the U.S. control over the proposed canal, as well as leases for potential canal defenses.
Sandinista insurrection (1972–1979)
A major turning point was the December 1972 Managua earthquake that killed over 10,000 people and left 500,000 homeless. A great deal of international relief was sent to the nation. Violent opposition to the government, especially to its widespread corruption, was then renewed with the Sandinistas being revived. The Sandinistas received some support from Cuba and the Soviet Union.
On 27 December 1974, a group of nine FSLN guerrillas invaded a party at the home of a former Minister of Agriculture, killing him and three guards in the process of taking several leading government officials and prominent businessmen hostage. In return for the hostages they succeeded in getting the government to pay US$1 million ransom, broadcast an FSLN declaration on the radio and in the opposition newspaper La Prensa, release fourteen FSLN members from jail, and fly the raiders and the released FSLN members to Cuba. Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo acted as an intermediary during the negotiations. The incident humiliated the government and greatly enhanced the prestige of the FSLN. Somoza, in his memoirs, refers to this action as the beginning of a sharp escalation in terms of Sandinista attacks and government reprisals. Martial law was declared in 1975, and the National Guard began to raze villages in the jungle suspected of supporting the rebels. Human rights groups condemned the actions, but U.S. President Gerald Ford refused to break the U.S. alliance with Somoza.